Clemonts v. Commissioner of Social Security et al
ORDER DENYING 34 Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and GRANTING 35 Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The final decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 7/15/2014. Copy mailed to pro se plaintiff via US Mail. (Fisher, M.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
APRIL MICHELE CLEMONTS,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the
pleadings. [DE 34 & 35]. For the reasons discussed below, defendant's motion is GRANTED,
plaintiffs motion is DENIED and the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
On June 3, 2008, plaintiff, April Clemonts filed applications for disability insurance
benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). Plaintiff alleged a disability onset
date of April 2, 2008 due to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and
anxiety attacks. The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration and a request for hearing
was timely filed. Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Richard E. Perlowski presided at a hearing
on July 19, 2010. On August 6, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals
Council reviewed the decision, vacated it and remanded to the ALJ. The Appeals Council
instructed the ALJ, on remand, to give further consideration to the third party statements and
obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert ("VE") to clarify the effect of plaintiffs
assessed limitations on her occupational base. A second hearing was held on June 13, 2011 and
on August 19, 2011, the ALJ issued another unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied a
request for review of that decision rendering the ALJ' s decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently filed a prose complaint in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S. C.
Defendant filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint as untimely which this Court
dismissed. [DE 12]. However, on June 26, 2013, the Court issued a notice to plaintiff of failure
to make service within 120 days. The Court then dismissed plaintiff's action for failure to
prosecute on October 11, 2013. [DE 28]. Plaintiff then petitioned the Court to reconsider its
motion and reverse the dismissal. [DE 30]. The Court granted that motion on March 12, 2014
and reopened the case. [DE 32]. Plaintiff then filed her motion for judgment on the pleadings
which requests a remand to the Commissioner for an additional hearing before an ALJ.
Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings asking for the decision of the Commissioner to
At the time of plaintiff's alleged onset date she was 26 years of age. Plaintiff has earned
her GED and stopped working on March 2, 2007, because she started to have panic attacks,
could not function correctly because of them, and had no babysitter to watch her children while
she worked. [Tr. 305; 311]. Plaintiff's prior work includes restaurant cashier, meat plant deboner,
bingo parlor floor runner, hotel housekeeper, sandwich artist, and retail store stocker. [Tr. 306].
Plaintiff has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and
an anxiety related disorder. [Tr. 465; 502]. Plaintiff appears to take Lexapro, Xanax, Seroquel,
and Zoloft to treat her conditions. [Tr. 31; 611].
When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district
court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative
record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as "evidence
which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Shively v.
Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984)(quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th
Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed.
Smith v. Chafer, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).
In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The analysis
requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the
claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the
claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments
significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the
claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is
equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's
impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment then, at step four, the claimant's residual
functional capacity ("RFC") is assessed to determine whether plaintiff can perform his past work
despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves
on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC
can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first
four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d
1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).
Here, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in two ways. First she argues that the ALJ made
his determination based solely on her age and job qualifications. Second plaintiff argues that the
ALJ did not properly consider the opinion of Dr. Hines who found that she had several limiting
mental restrictions that would prevent her from performing any work activity. In both instances,
substantial evidence in the record supports the findings of the ALJ and the decision of the
Commissioner is therefore affirmed.
Plaintiff argues that Dr. Hines found that she had severe limiting mental restrictions that
would prevent her from performing any work activity and that, if his diagnosis was questioned
by the Agency, she should have had the opportunity to receive a second opinion by a doctor of
its choice. However, this argument misses the point. The ALJ did not question the diagnosis of
Dr. Hines and treated the opinion as a treating source statement. However, the ALJ granted this
opinion little weight as he found that it was not supported by the record evidence. Controlling
weight may not be given to a treating source's medical opinion unless the opinion is wellsupported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques. SSR 96-2p.
Here, the ALJ considered all of the evidence from plaintiffs treatment records beginning
with the court ordered evaluation on June 3, 2008 through the treatment note dated May 9, 2011.
[Tr. 15-16]. The ALJ noted, and the record supports, that plaintiffs symptoms have significantly
improved with treatment, and as such, do not support Dr. Hines's opinion that plaintiff is unable
to work. Further, the ALJ considered her statement that she had been fired by previous
employers due to her symptoms, but noted that none of the medications she is currently using to
treat her condition preclude her from work. As such the ALJ's assignment of weight to Dr.
Hines's opinion is supported by substantial evidence and the Court finds no error in the ALI's
dealing with this opinion.
Plaintiff also argues that the ALI's decision was based solely on her age and job
qualifications that she obtained in the past. This is clearly not true. The ALJ provided a detailed
decision in which he considered all of the medical evidence, plaintiffs testimony, and the third
party function reports submitted on her behalf. After considering all of this evidence, the ALJ
determined her RFC and took into consideration all of this evidence in formulating the
limitations included in the RFC finding. [Tr. 16]. The fact that the ALJ clearly considered all of
this evidence and then discussed it in making his determination shows that he based his finding
upon the treatment record showing that plaintiffs mental impairments improved significantly
with treatment. There is no support in the record for her assertion that the decision was made
solely on her age and job qualifications that she obtained in the past.
The ALI's finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, this
Court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.
For the foregoing reasons, the plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings is
DENIED, the defendant's motion is GRANTED, and the final decision of the Commissioner is
This Jjday of July 2014.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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